Sunday, December 4, 2011


I am glad to see in the last year or so some history books appeared on the market that cover early American military history. It had seemed to me that many people interested in history had forgotten the strategic value of what is now modern New York State in the early formation of our country.

In our modern society many have lost the perspective that in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, geography and topography had greatly influenced the avenues of transportation used by armies. This meant that waterways and their associated valleys were the easiest routes to travel on land or on the water.

Others have forgotten that the western portions of the states of New York and Pennsylvania were considered the "frontier". The general boundary line between civilization and the wilds were the Appalachian Mountains. East of this barrier was the area inhabited by the newly arrived Europeans and west of the mountains was generally the purview of the Indians. The Appalachians stretched through all thirteen colonies.

If you examine these mountains on a physical map you'll notice most of the major river systems east of the mountains naturally have a north-south orientation. Accordingly this dictated the easiest directions to travel (i.e. north and south). The only east-west break occurs in New York State where the Mohawk River drainage system nears the Wood Creek system. The Mohawk flows east and empties into the Hudson River while Wood Creek flows west and empties into Oneida Lake.

This strategic portage was known as the Oneida Carry. Depending on water levels it was a distance of one to five miles. The Oneida Indians settled in this area in a settlement know as Oriska and the Europeans eventually built Fort Stanwix to stand guard over this vital point. This cut through the Appalachian Mountains stands at only 450 feet above sea level. During the early history of the colonies into the formation of the United States this area made New York the Keystone State.

Soldiers and warriors would traverse the "Great Warpath" in a southerly direction by leaving the St. Lawrence River and going up the Richelieu to Lake Champlain then to Lake George or Wood Creek (a different one) and then portage to the Hudson River. Once on the Hudson, they had the choice of going west on the Mohawk River eventually to Lake Ontario or the central portions of the Iroquois territory, in what is now central New York State. The other option would be to continue down the Hudson River to New York City.

In 1777 the British tried to take advantage of these routes when they tried to implement a plan that would separate troublesome New England from the rest of the colonies. The thinking behind the strategy was that if the rebellious Yankees were isolated, the rebellion would be thwarted. The plan consisted of a three pronged, coordinated attack across New York State. General John Burgoyne would head south from Canada up the Lake Champlain valley and invest Fort Ticonderoga on his way to the Albany area. General Barry St. Ledger was to approach from the west, from Lake Ontario at Oswego and up the Oswego River to the Oneida River, Oneida Lake and across the Oneida Carry and down the Mohawk River. General Henry Clinton was to travel north up the Hudson River and meet the other British contingents in the area of Albany.

The plan when executed was not coordinated properly and all three British commanders failed in beating back the rebel forces. Although St. Ledger blooded the rebels at Oriskany he failed to take Fort Stanwix and eventually retreated due in part to Continental reinforcements. Clinton could not reach past the Hudson Highlands where he was halted by the enemy in this choke point of the Hudson River. Burgoyne met with failure largely due to the overextension of his lines of communication and met with disaster at Saratoga where over 6,000 British troops and Germanic mercenaries surrendered.

This British debacle in 1777 prompted the French to enter the war on the American side and as a result of the loss of Seneca warriors at Oriskany at the hands of the colonists and Oneida warriors, the Iroquois confederation was split. With civil war in both camps and the addition of new alliances, this was a pivotal moment in the American Revolution, all of which was precipitated by geography.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent! Most people don't realize how much of that war was fought on New York soil.